1. Technical Competency
As a Supply Chain Consultant you need to be ‘chief cook & bottle-washer’ – you need to do the talking and the doing. You need to be able to identify the issues, analyse them and present the options, and then define and deliver the solution.
Unlike senior managers and directors, you also often need to do these things without a team. You need to be entirely self-sufficient.
Much of the work involved in supply chain consultancy is science. Any consultant working in the supply chain and logistics field should be an expert in the use of basic office tools such as MS Excel, MS Visio, MS Project, but also have a solid understanding of optimisation tools such as CAST, Llamasoft and Paragon. Without analytical ability, and the application of analytical methods and tools, all you have left is talk. And as they say, talk is cheap.
I like the adage ‘roughly right, not precisely wrong’. Sometimes the solution to a problem is highly complex. Take, for example, ‘Optimisation Problems’. In an optimisation problem you may seek to maximise or minimise a specific quantity which depends on a finite number of input variables. In the real world that could be determining the lowest cost to market for a product that is produced on multiple manufacturing sites with different production rates, varying capacities, and different manufacturing and logistics costs.
You can make a mathematical model to determine the answer to this problem. In your modelling you can use linear programs, integer programs or quadratic programs. Whichever mathematical approach you adopt will undoubtedly get you to an ‘optimal’ answer – eventually.
However, this type of mathematical programming is hugely complex, time-consuming and a very difficult process to explain to stake-holders. This is where you need to be pragmatic – if you can get a sensible looking answer, quickly, using approximation and simple spreadsheet analysis, then you are more likely to convince stake-holders and get engagement in your solution. Additionally, you always need to ensure that your efforts are commensurate with the results. Don’t spend 2 weeks calculating a £100,000 saving if you can save £99,999 in 5 minutes!
3. Commercial Acumen
This is a difficult one to quantify. It is often referred to on people’s CVs and LinkedIn profiles but what does it really mean? Well, for me, being commercially astute means being conscious of the business’ main objective, whilst interlinking it with a knowledge and understanding of the financial, commercial and operational functions of the organisation. A supply chain consultant needs to be aware of how the supply chain and logistics operations impact on all the other functions of a business, and how, in turn, it will affect the ultimate objective of the business.
All too often I have seen what I term ‘sub-optimisation’ i.e. one aspect of a business is improved but it negatively affects another aspect. One particular example I recall was in the automotive industry. A team of six-sigma practitioners worked to reduce line-side stock to great effect. They perfectly modelled and implemented a kan-ban system, supported by optimal routing of deliveries to line-side, further supported by slick and well timed sequencing. Stock in the plant was dramatically reduced and efficiency was greatly increased.
However, their inbound logistics was contracted to a 3PL under a fixed price agreement. That 3PL was supporting the line with 400k sq. ft. of storage which was now filled to the rafters with stock! Instead of addressing the over-stocking issues at source with suppliers, the team had simply pushed the over-stocking further up the supply chain, failing to recognise that they were still paying for it. Only this time they were paying for it with a 3PL’s margin attached!
To use a well-worn, but still true phrase, supply chain consultants needs to take a holistic view of a business.
4. Clear and Concise Communications
You need to engage all stake-holders in your approach and deliveries. It is of no value getting the CEO to understand a concept, if you fail to explain it to the team on the shop-floor who may be the ones delivering your ideas. It is essential to keep explanations simple, but not to dilute the complexity of the message. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
It should go without saying that you cannot be a consultant without experience to reference. I personally started out as a stock-clerk in a warehouse, and since then have spent 16 years in increasingly senior roles until becoming a consultant 5 years ago. In the past 5 years I have worked with more than 40 consulting clients across most business sectors.
You need a long history of successes (and failures!) to reference in order to bring confidence and credibility to your position. I also believe it is critical to have multi-sector experience. All too often certain industries only benchmark their service within their own sector – but what if the service of everyone in that sector is sub-standard? A supply chain consultant needs to bring knowledge of other sectors. After all, regardless of industry, we are all just trying to get the right product to the right customer at the right price. A supply chain consultant sharing good practice across the sectors can help achieve this.